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‘Encouraging creativity in children is really important for wellbeing’: Peta Swindall is ready to celebrate Little Angel’s 60th anniversary with audiences

We chatted to the executive director of the Little Angel Puppet Theatre about plans for the theatre’s 60th anniversary year…

First of all congratulations to the Little Angel Theatre on celebrating its 60th anniversary – how does it feel to have helped the theatre reach that milestone?
It’s an honour and great responsibility to be at the helm of Little Angel Theatre at any time. The number of people who tell us that a visit to our theatre was one of their first experiences of theatre or a fond memory of their childhood makes you realise the impact that this little venue has had on so many people, not to mention the work supporting and developing individuals who work in the puppetry industry. Coming out of this pandemic, aware of the struggles of artists and organisations across our whole industry, we are really grateful that the venue is weathering the storm, thanks in no small part to some very generous individuals and foundations who believe in our mission and values, and we continue to strive to support our audiences, artists, local community and staff through this hugely challenging period.

Could you tell me more about the plans that you have in place to mark the occasion?
We are starting the celebrations with a ‘choose your own adventure’-style live digital production of Sean Taylor’s Where the Bugaboo Lives, while live performances are not possible. As these restrictions begin to ease, we are working to restart live shows by bringing to life Julia Donaldson’s The Smartest Giant in Town in a new co-production with Fierylight, as well as launching a community project inspired by a brand new Joseph Coelho poem – The Wishing Tree will see ‘magical trees’ appear throughout Islington this summer designed by artists including Sam Wilde and Ingrid Hu and populated by puppets made by local children.

Alongside these events, we are continuing with our digital output, including a new series People Behind the Puppets, which celebrates 60 years of ground-breaking puppetry design as Little Angel’s very own puppet ‘Angel’ interviews makers including Toby Olié and Alison Alexander as well as continuing to collaborate with exciting artists to release new short digital plays and puppet making activities every two weeks including The Little Prince, Paris Cat, and many more. We are also thrilled to be able to start work to adapt our suitcase show If Not Here…Where? so that it can continue to tour hospitals and hospices throughout the summer transporting some of the most isolated children to a magical fantasy world.

It must have been really difficult to plan given the uncertainty – how did you approach coming up with ideas for the 60th anniversary season?
As an organisation we like to think of ourselves as light-footed, and we try to be as responsive as possible to the needs of those that we work with, this season being no exception. Choosing to restart our live shows with The Smartest Giant in Town is really exciting, it is a show that we have wanted to present for some time – it is a story full of hope and joy and about being kind – something that we all need given the challenges of the past year – and the challenges that still lie ahead.

We are also aware of the challenges that face our local community, which has one of the highest levels of child poverty in the UK and has been hard hit by the pandemic, so developing a show with our local children at its core was a big priority for us, finding a way to ignite aspiration and creativity as we move forward. We are obviously having to continue to have multiple scenarios and contingency plans going forward, but that is something we are quite used to now given the past year, as well as developing our digital programme, which has diversified our audience and extended our reach.

Could you tell me about what has the theatre been up to behind the scenes during lockdown? We have been really busy! Following the heart-breaking decision to close our doors in March last year, we adapted quickly making new work accessible through digital formats which have been watched all over the world, with productions and accompanying puppet making activities inspiring and engaging young audiences in more than 90 countries, with over 750,000 views of the 140 videos that we have created for our YouTube channel. We have also delivered several ‘live’ shows (via Zoom), a summer festival (Puppet Picnic), transferred our professional development course and classes to a digital platform and where restrictions allowed we have continued to work to support our most local community.

Why would you say that theatre is important in children’s development? There are many elements of a trip to the theatre which have a really positive impact on young people’s development and wellbeing – these range from something as simple as a shared experience with a family or school friends, facilitating discussions about difficult and complex subjects and helping to develop emotional intelligence. Looking beyond this, the work that we do encourages continued participation and storytelling, the use of puppets can easily be translated into positive play and simple creative inspiration – we have hundreds of photos of cardboard theatres created in lockdown, which children have used to perform to their families, igniting their imagination and giving them the tools to tell their own stories.

It would be fair to say that children’s mental health has had a severe knock in the last year, how have the Little Angel Theatre been trying to support it during lockdown? One of the main reasons we felt passionately about shifting quickly to a digital model when we closed our doors was to support our young audiences. Encouraging creativity in children is really important for wellbeing, helping to focus the mind and having a calming effect, and so using stories and associated craft activities we launched ‘Watch, Make, Share’. We wanted this to be as accessible as possible, so all the content on our YouTube channel has been available for free, and we were keen to ensure that our craft activities were able to be made using everyday materials that could be found at home. We have been mindful of issues of digital poverty, particularly in our local area, and have delivered content in person where we have been able to including crafternoons in the park, creating content for craftpacks distributed to local food banks and working with our local partner schools and other voluntary organisations.

What are you most looking forward to about opening your doors to the public again when it is allowed? So many things! The pre-performance buzz of the foyer, our designers poring tirelessly over an intricate details of a beautiful puppet… but at the heart of everything we try and do is to harness a sense of fun – seeing a class of children belly laughing, singing along with the performers or experiencing pure joy at the unexpected exploits of a cheeky puppet is truly a feeling that cannot be replicated.

By Emma Clarendon

To find out more about what the Little Angel Theatre has in store this year visit:

from News, Reviews and Features – My Theatre Mates

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